Target objects required for goal-directed behavior are typically embedded within multiple irrelevant objects that may interfere with their encoding. Most neuroimaging studies of high-level visual cortex have examined the representation of isolated objects, and therefore, little is known about how surrounding objects influence the neural representation of target objects. To investigate the effect of different types of clutter on the distributed responses to target objects in high-level visual areas, we used fMRI and manipulated the type of clutter. Specifically, target objects (i.e., a face and a house) were presented either in isolation, in the presence of a homogeneous (identical objects from another category) clutter (“pop-out” display), or in the presence of a heterogeneous (different objects) clutter, while participants performed a target identification task. Using multivoxel pattern analysis (MVPA) we found that in the posterior fusiform object area a heterogeneous but not homogeneous clutter interfered with decoding of the target objects. Furthermore, multivoxel patterns evoked by isolated objects were more similar to multivoxel patterns evoked by homogenous compared with heterogeneous clutter in the lateral occipital and posterior fusiform object areas. Interestingly, there was no effect of clutter on the neural representation of the target objects in their category-selective areas, such as the fusiform face area and the parahippocampal place area. Our findings show that the variation among irrelevant surrounding objects influences the neural representation of target objects in the object general area, but not in object category-selective cortex, where the representation of target objects is invariant to their surroundings.

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